WASHINGTON — The unemployment rate has been on a slow downward trajectory since the recession ended nearly five years ago. And the overall jobless level has dropped to nonrecession levels. But the number of the working-age people with jobs is barely 6 in 10, hovering at a level reminiscent of the late 1970s.
In May, the workforce participation rate — the combination of those with jobs and unemployed workers actively seeking them — was 62.8 percent, the same as in April. Job markets have been essentially flat since October.
Where have all the missing workers gone?
A key factor, nearly all agree, is the growing exodus from the job market of baby boomers. Born roughly from 1946 to 1964, these workers are at or are fast approaching retirement age.
Another reason is that some employment-intensive industries that suffered the most during the Great Recession, especially in manufacturing and construction, have yet to fully rebound.
But perhaps the most significant factor is unemployed workers ‘‘who just drop out of the job market after one, two or three years of looking for work and not being successful,’’ said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University.
Recent surveys suggest more and more longtime unemployed workers are abandoning the search for another job.
‘‘And they are disproportionately older workers,’’ Van Horn said. ‘‘We have a large number of older [unemployed] workers who are not old enough to retire, yet they are facing discrimination in the workplace and have found it nearly impossible to get another job.’’
There’s a flip side to that, though, Van Horn suggests: ‘‘As the economy gets stronger, as it continues to grow, eventually some of those discouraged workers will come back into the labor market, and we’ll have a higher labor-participation rate.’’
But that hasn’t happened — yet.
‘‘We know that the reason unemployment is so high right now is pretty simple: Employers haven’t seen demand for their stuff pick up in a way that would require them to bring on more workers,’’ said Heidi Shierholz, the chief economist for the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank.
‘‘It’s going to be this way for a while. We’re in a long slog,’’ Shierholz said.
‘‘We really are in a recovery. Things are getting better,’’ Shierholz added. ‘‘It is agonizingly slow. But we are going in the right direction.’’
It may be quite a while before the jobless rate falls back to 5 percent and below, long the informal standard for a normal level for nonrecession times.
But 5 percent may no longer be the norm.
In February 2011, economists at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank suggested 6 percent might be the ‘‘new normal.’’ But some analysts suggested even that may be unrealistically low.
‘‘Our economy is leaving our unemployed folks further and further behind,’’ said Robert A. Funk, chief executive of Express Employment Professional, an Oklahoma City service that tries to line people up with jobs and help client companies find employees.
‘‘But if people quit looking for work at a rate like this, it makes our job much, much more difficult,’’ said Funk, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
Joblessness is disproportionately high among younger workers, as well.
Generation Opportunity, a nonpartisan youth advocacy organization, reported even higher effective unemployment rates for those under 30.
‘‘School is out for summer, and more than four out of five recent grads don’t have jobs. My generation deserves better than an economy in which a 15.4 percent effective unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds is considered a good month,’’ said Patrice Lee, director of outreach for the organization.
The overall US unemployment rate is now back to where it was before the Great Recession. It was 6.3 percent in May, same as the month before.